My friend and I backpacked through Spain for a month in 2005 and we started our Spanish adventure by attending the running of the bulls in Pamplona. The bullrun is part of the festival of San Fermines, a festival that runs between July 6 and 14th each year. The first ‘race’ is held on July 7th, and then each morning thereafter. Bull running is on the bucket list of many people, but the thought of actually running never even crossed my mind, I was only there to watch and to enjoy the Saint Fermines festivities with my friend.
The bull running kicks off at 8 o’clock in the morning and barely lasts for a few minutes. The tradition is more than 423 years old and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. This race takes place through the narrow streets of Pamplona and may be the most dangerous thing to do in Spain.
Seeing it on TV and seeing it live are two different things. Right before the run the bulls are often confined to small dark enclosures before being forced out into the menacing crowd on the street, frequently through the use of electric shock prods. As the bulls try to get their bearings the runners immediately begin hitting them with rolled-up newspapers to get them going. These bulls are panicking and literally running for their lives among the hundreds of runners. The bulls often lose their footing, slamming into walls, sometimes breaking bones and otherwise injuring themselves, or into people in their desperate attempt to flee from their attackers. The runners were also trampling each other, falling over each other to get away from the panicking bulls.
It is estimated that 56% of the runners are foreigners, a lot who travelled to Spain especially for this event. Participants must be over 18, physically fit and not be under the influence of alcohol to participate in the run. We actually knew a couple of guys who ran that first morning and I am sure that some of them were still under the influence from the previous night as why else would they have done something this crazy!!
Huge oxen were also released with the bulls. These served the purpose of guiding the bulls to run in the correct direction towards the bullring. We saw as some of the bulls got turned around and some even ran into the fences set up to guide them towards the bullring. Men and even some young children run in front of the bulls, provoking them and then trying to outrun them into the bullring. This cruel race originated when the bulls were originally transported to the bullrings to get sold. Men would try to speed up the process by running in front of the bulls to provoke them, a process which turned into a competition.
All the runners hopefully make it into the bullring and that is then where they all have some very cruel fun with the bulls. The bulls are led into the bullring and then teased by hundreds of people who would then trample each other to get out of the way of these angry bulls. Everyone was wearing white pants and shirts, accessorized with a red bandana around the neck or waist. One legend says the look is meant to honor San Fermin, as the white symbolizes sainthood and the red the fact that he was martyred. Others say they are dressed like the butchers who originated the tradition. But did you know bulls are colour blind? Bulls are easily provoked and follow movements fast. They follow the speed of the runners, not the red colour of their uniform.
This race is sometimes fatal. Since 1924, when officials started keeping record, 15 people have died. Every year, around 200-300 are injured in the race. Most people get injured when they fall down or fall into a barrier meant to keep the bulls on the course. We saw some of these injuries as people got trampled or thrown by the bulls.
The whole scene was quite disturbing so we left before the end as I was afraid that they would actually kill these bulls. It was here that I got a disliking for this event. And after watching a real bullfight, I have turned completely against this “sport”.
Is the running of the bulls still on your bucket list?